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An Unforgettable Visit to Shutter Island

February 24, 2010 2 comments

From the minute I saw the opening credits of this film, I had a big smile on my face. The big, menacing score playing over as we enter through the gates of a creepy mental institution, only confirms that we are in the authoritative hands of an old master, Martin Scorsese. He knows how to use film as a medium to create a deep emotional impact in the viewer.

“Shutter Island,” based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, is set in 1954 on a island off the Boston coast. From among the foggy ocean a ship carrying two U.S Marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), heads towards a mental institution for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. Their job is to investigate the disappearance of a prisoner, Rachel Solondo (Emily Mortimer). During their investigation they are greeted with reluctance from the hospital staff, including the head medical director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Teddy soon believes that something is not right about this investigation. During his inquiry, Teddy starts to get massive headaches which trigger haunting dreams about his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams).

Scorsese does a brilliant job of setting up an atmosphere of paranoia and dread. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is terrific at creating a beautiful fantasy dream landscape and the dour colors on Shutter Island. Look at the way Scorsese uses point of view shots to set up the paranoia emotions of Teddy. The editing, by the great Thelma Schoonmaker, is sensational at throwing the audience off its axis. A scene involving a patient drinking a glass of water will have your mind guessing what you just saw.

The images that Scorsese and his team create are simply gorgeous to behold on-screen. The dream sequences are shot in rich colors, which stand in stark contrast to the reality of the prison walls. I was carried away by the simple, entrancing imagery of papers endlessly floating around a room in one scene. Another hauntingly beautiful dream involves DiCaprio holding his wife in his arms as she turns into a pile of ashes. These dream scenes are important in providing insight into the film’s narrative.

I saw this film twice, and the second time around I took notice of how great DiCaprio’s performance is in this film. This is without a doubt, his best performance to date. There are times, when his performance almost brought me to tears. He is a man who loves his dead wife with a passion and love that is completely believable. You see the heartbreak, pain in his eyes when he looks on at his wife. There are a group of other great performances in this film as well. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, as another doctor at the institution, are great at bordering the ambiguity of good and evil. Emily Mortimer is appropriately crazy without over doing it. Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson are very memorable in their brief moments on-screen.

Other than being a master at creating a dark atmosphere, Scorsese is experimenting with narrative here. At the end of the film, we ask ourselves what is the truth? Who are we to believe? There’s going to be a lot of talk about the ending and I can see how it could throw some people off. I was so drawn into the picture, that I was thrown off a bit when the ending arrived. There is too much explanation about what’s been occurring. I would have liked to have had some more ambiguity surrounding the conclusion. However, after seeing the film a second time, the ending didn’t bother me as much. There is whole new dimension to the story once you know the ending.

Whatever issue I had with the ending during my first viewing, I must admit that I was emotionally and mentally blown away by it. I was literally hunched over in my seat, my eyes glued to the screen. I can’t remember the last time a film had such a strong emotional impact on me. I did not want to leave the theatre as the credits played. When I left the theatre, I literally left in an almost trance like state.

If this film had been made as a standard horror/thriller film, it would have been easily forgotten. Scorsese, with his team of actors and technical crew, rises above the story’s familiar trappings. He has crafted a film that is a tragic examination of a man living with guilt and trauma. This is certainly the best film of this early year. The rest of the movies to be released this year have a lot to live up to.

5 stars

One of the reasons why I didn’t want to leave during the credits is because of a haunting, beautiful song played over the credit reel. The song was a combination of “This Bitter Earth” with a piece music called “On the Nature of Daylight.” Never before have a song and film fit so perfectly together.

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Celebrating Roger Ebert

February 18, 2010 1 comment

If you haven’t made your way to this terrific Esquire article about Roger Ebert, you should. It’s at times hard to read about the medical troubles that Ebert has went through, but it’s also an honest look at Ebert’s personal resolve and his love of movies.

The Siskel and Ebert program was a staple in my life growing up. Every Sunday I would make it a point to watch Siskel and Ebert, which then became Ebert and Roeper. Richard Roeper took over the co-host spot in 2000, after Gene Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999. Going into the 2000’s, I knew Ebert was battling cancer and did see his personal image change because of his cancer treatments. Ebert’s last show was aired in July of 2006. To this day, I can still remember watching that show. It seems strange that “Superman Returns,” and “Strangers With Candy,” are among the last of Ebert’s on-air reviews.

The cancer surgery that Ebert went through had severe complications. He lost the ability to speak. I was hoping that he would regain his voice and return back to the show. Unfortunately, that never happened. The show would continue without Ebert until the summer of 2008. The show would undergo a change of new hosts, until finally settling with A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune. I still continue to watch the show, but it doesn’t feel right without Ebert there. If you look at some of the old shows of Gene and Roger, you see the two of them have the kind of chemistry that isn’t easy to duplicate. In the Esquire article, Ebert says they “were born to be Siskel and Ebert.”

Just because Ebert is no longer on television, doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have a voice. Ebert still continues to review movies, and he has a twitter account, which is a source for some entertaining, interesting thoughts. In some ways, he has been reborn thanks to his online presence.

Without a doubt, he is America’s most well-known and respected film critic. His reviews are usually the first I read. The way he has bravely lead his life after his medical troubles and his love of films, is an inspiration.

Here is a classic clip of Siskel and Ebert going toe to toe with Howard Stern. I love this clip because you can tell everyone involved is having a fun time.

You Can Miss The Last Station

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

What I know about Leo Tolstoy could fill a thimble. I’ve never read any of Tolstoy’s acclaimed works, like “War and Peace,” because I am almost illiterate. The closest I’ve come to “War and Peace” is seeing a poster in the 1968 version of “The Producers” for a dirty film called “War and Piece.”

“The Last Station” shows us Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) near the end of his life. He has become a major celebrity in early 1900’s Russia. He has developed such a following that a type of religion is created over his teachings. The leader of this movement, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) wants Tolstoy to leave his money from his literature to the people of Russia. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) is against this idea. She wants to keep the money for her and their children. The witness to all this bickering is a member of Tolstoy following and Tolstoy’s new secretary, Valentin (James McAvoy).

Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are both fine in their roles. Both were nominated for Oscars, but neither will win. McAvoy was also decent as his role as the young, idealistic secretary. Though, we hardly see him doing any secretarial duties. Giamatti was wasted in his part as the antagonist. The most he gets to do is twirl his mustache like a villain out of a silent film. Some of the film’s big dramatic moments are executed poorly. When Mirren throws herself into a body of water, it comes across as silly, rather than heartbreaking.

One problem I had with the movie is that we never get a good sense of who these people in this Tolstoy inspired community are and what they do. In the film, there is a community of followers that live near by Tolstoy. It seems like there are only two members of the community, McAvoy, and his love interest. The most we ever see this community actually doing something, is when Tolstoy hands out flowers to a group of small children. What the hell is that about?

The last third of the picture drags along at a snail’s pace. The film never rises above its trappings as a “lifeless costume drama.” Have to credit Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune for that dead-on quote about this movie. During the film’s credits we get to see actual silent film footage shot of the real-life Leo Tolstoy. Those images of the real-life Tolstoy are more riveting and full of life than the rest of the picture.

2 stars

Rounding up the Foreigners: The White Ribbon, Broken Embraces

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

The White Ribbon: The white ribbon tied to a young boy’s arm in the film, is used to represent innocence and purity. This object is about the only thing innocent and pure in this village full of pure evil.

The film, from director Michael Haneke won the prestigious Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The story takes place in a small German village right before the start of World War One. The film is narrated from the future, by the local school teacher, played by Christian Friedel. When the local doctor is injured riding his horse, and several of the village children are assualted, a wave of paranoia and distrust sweeps over the village.

We will never really know who committed these violent acts. Everybody in the town is a suspect, from the adults to the village children. There are no easy solutions for what is occurring in this village. The viewer has to work to discover what is going on. At the end, we think we know what is happening, but we are not completely sure. Haneke did something similar with his great 2005 film, “Cache.”

The evil acts of violence are almost never shown on-screen. A door will close and we use our minds to think of the horror happening behind it. The film does a great job of showing us the roots of evil. The parents hurt their children, and their children will then lash out against others. We can see the roots of Nazism starting to begin in this village. About the only decent character in the film is the school teacher. His romance with a young woman in the village is about the only thing that can be classified as nice in the film.

The black and white cinematography by Christian Berger is terrific. It’s able to convey beauty and at the same time magnify the anger, despair that Haneke aims for. He also does a good job of handling the multiple story lines and character relationships. We always know who and what is occurring in the film.

4 stars

Broken Embraces: This film is for those who love film. This film is what we expect from its director, Pedro Almodovar. It’s full of well executed melodrama, and some beautiful cinematic images.

The film centers on Harry Caine (Lluis Homer) a once great director whose career was ended when he was blinded in a car crash during the production of his film, “Girls and Suitcases.” Years later he is visited by a man called Ray-X (Ruben Ochandiano). Ray-X wants Caine to write a story about his father, who was the producer of “Girls and Suitcases,” Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Martel produced the film on the condition that his mistress, Lena (Penelope Cruz) star in it. The director and his star eventually end up in love and the film traces their tragic romance.

Almodovar does a great job of relating to the audience the importance of images. Caine is devastated by not being able to see anymore. In one emotional moment, Caine puts his hands over a image of himself with Lena. Without his eyesight, he has to use touch to try to get back that emotional moment back. The film did strike a chord with me because it’s cruel to think of a film lover losing the gift of sight.

The film is a very good melodrama, full of flashbacks, plot twists, intersecting story lines. I wouldn’t put the film up alongside some his best work, like “Talk to Her.” The story line involving Ray-X kind of flat lines when it reaches the end. As a matter of fact, the entire film does kind of stumbles along to its conclusion. But I was always willingly to go along for the ride.

Overall, the film is a lot of fun. The humor works and Cruz is an absolute beauty to look at on-screen. She has that movie star quality which makes it hard for you to take your eyes away from her. The last shot of Cruz, a freeze frame, is powerful and full of emotion. There is a great quote in the film that can serve as an inspiration for all others. Caine says “films have to finished, even if you do it blindly.”

3 1/2 stars

2009 Oscar Nomination Reactions

February 2, 2010 Leave a comment

The ten best picture nominees were pretty much what I expected. The one surprise was that “Invictus” didn’t get nominated. I guess the support for the film wasn’t there. It only landed nominations for Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. “The Blind Side” took its spot among the ten best picture nominees. It’s a horrible, terrible film and doesn’t deserve to be among the ten. I liked the other 9 films nominated for best picture. It was good seeing “Inglourious Basterds,” “The Hurt Locker,” “A Serious Man” and “District 9” among the nominees.

Among the acting nominations, the only real surprise was Maggie Gyllenhaal for best supporting actress in “Crazy Heart.” She doesn’t deserve to be in there. Neither does Penelope Cruz in “Nine.” She’s terrible in the film. The Academy passed up the best performance in “Nine,” Marion Cotillard. The voting members were probably swayed by Cruz’s lingerie-clad musical number. It’s disappointing that Melanie Laurent or Diane Kruger of “Inglorious Basterds” didn’t make it in either the lead or supporting category. The best supporting actress award is going to Mo’Nique in “Precious.” The best actress race is contest between Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock. It will be a dark day if Sandra Bullock wins best actress.

Among the male acting nominations, there was no real surprises. Jeff Bridges is certain to win best actor for “Crazy Heart.” Christoph Waltz has the best supporting actor award in the bag. Other than Waltz, the best supporting actor nominees were very dull. Matt Damon is okay in “Invictus,” but not award worthy. The same goes for Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones.” There were a hell of a lot better performances that deserved to be nominated. Take a look at my outstanding picks for the best supporting male performances of the year.

Glad to see “In the Loop” make it in the best adapted screenplay category. Jason Reitman AND Sheldon Turner will probably win the adapted screenplay award. The best original screenplay award will go down as a battle between the two war films, Quentin Taratino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Hurt Locker.” I was happy to see “Star Trek” and “500 Days of Summer” ignored in the screenplay categories.

It was great to see “Inglourious Basterds” make it with 8 nominations. I think it should win, but the race for best picture will probably come down to “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker.” Both films are tied for the most nominations with 9 each. It seems proper that the director of those two film, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, were once married and will now battle it out for the best picture and best director awards. If I had to guess now, I would say “The Hurt Locker” takes home best picture and best director.

Complete List of the 82nd Annual Academy Award nominations:

Best Picture
“Avatar”, James Cameron and Jon Landau, Producers
“The Blind Side”, Nominees to be determined
“District 9”, Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, Producers
“An Education”, Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, Producers
“The Hurt Locker”, Nominees to be determined
“Inglourious Basterds”, Lawrence Bender, Producer
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”, Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, Producers
“A Serious Man”, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Producers
“Up”, Jonas Rivera, Producer
“Up in the Air”, Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, Producers

Actor in a Leading Role
Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney in “Up in the Air”
Colin Firth in “A Single Man”
Morgan Freeman in “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”

Actor in a Supporting Role
Matt Damon in “Invictus”
Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger”
Christopher Plummer in “The Last Station”
Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones”
Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds”

Actress in a Leading Role
Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”
Helen Mirren in “The Last Station”
Carey Mulligan in “An Education”
Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
Meryl Streep in “Julie & Julia”

Actress in a Supporting Role
Penelope Cruz in “Nine”
Vera Farmiga in “Up in the Air”
Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart”
Anna Kendrick in “Up in the Air”
Mo’Nique in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”

Animated Feature Film
“Coraline”, Henry Selick
“Fantastic Mr. Fox”, Wes Anderson
“The Princess and the Frog”, John Musker and Ron Clements
“The Secret of Kells”, Tomm Moore
“Up”, Pete Docter

Art Direction
“Avatar”, Art Direction: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Kim Sinclair
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, Art Direction: Dave Warren and Anastasia Masaro; Set Decoration: Caroline Smith
“Nine”, Art Direction: John Myhre; Set Decoration: Gordon Sim
“Sherlock Holmes”, Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
“The Young Victoria”, Art Direction: Patrice Vermette; Set Decoration: Maggie Gray

Cinematography
“Avatar”, Mauro Fiore
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, Bruno Delbonnel
“The Hurt Locker”, Barry Ackroyd
“Inglourious Basterds”, Robert Richardson
“The White Ribbon”, Christian Berger

Costume Design
“Bright Star”, Janet Patterson
“Coco before Chanel”, Catherine Leterrier
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, Monique Prudhomme
“Nine”, Colleen Atwood
“The Young Victoria”, Sandy Powell

Directing
“Avatar”, James Cameron
“The Hurt Locker”, Kathryn Bigelow
“Inglourious Basterds”, Quentin Tarantino
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”, Lee Daniels
“Up in the Air”, Jason Reitman

Documentary (Feature)
“Burma VJ”, Anders Ostergaard and Lise Lense-Moller
“The Cove”, Nominees to be determined
“Food, Inc.”, Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein
“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
“Which Way Home”, Rebecca Cammisa

Documentary (Short Subject)
“China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province”, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill
“The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner”, Daniel Junge and Henry Ansbacher
“The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant”, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
“Music by Prudence”, Roger Ross Williams and Elinor Burkett
“Rabbit a la Berlin”, Bartek Konopka and Anna Wydra

Film Editing
“Avatar”, Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua and James Cameron
“District 9”, Julian Clarke
“The Hurt Locker”, Bob Murawski and Chris Innis
“Inglourious Basterds”, Sally Menke
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”, Joe Klotz

Foreign Language Film
“Ajami”, Israel
“El Secreto de Sus Ojos”, Argentina
“The Milk of Sorrow”, Peru
“Un Prophete”, France
“The White Ribbon”, Germany

Makeup
“Il Divo”, Aldo Signoretti and Vittorio Sodano
“Star Trek”, Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow
“The Young Victoria”, Jon Henry Gordon and Jenny Shircore

Music (Original Score)
“Avatar”, James Horner
“Fantastic Mr. Fox”, Alexandre Desplat
“The Hurt Locker”, Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders
“Sherlock Holmes”, Hans Zimmer
“Up”, Michael Giacchino

Music (Original Song)
“Almost There” from “The Princess and the Frog”, Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
“Down in New Orleans” from “The Princess and the Frog”, Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
“Loin de Paname” from “Paris 36”, Music by Reinhardt Wagner Lyric by Frank Thomas
“Take It All” from “Nine”, Music and Lyric by Maury Yeston
“The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” from “Crazy Heart”, Music and Lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett

Short Film (Animated)
“French Roast”, Fabrice O. Joubert
“Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty”, Nicky Phelan and Darragh O’Connell
“The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)”, Javier Recio Gracia
“Logorama”, Nicolas Schmerkin
“A Matter of Loaf and Death”, Nick Park

Short Film (Live Action)
“The Door”, Juanita Wilson and James Flynn
“Instead of Abracadabra”, Patrik Eklund and Mathias Fjellstroem
“Kavi”, Gregg Helvey
“Miracle Fish”, Luke Doolan and Drew Bailey
“The New Tenants”, Joachim Back and Tivi Magnusson

Sound Editing
“Avatar”, Christopher Boyes and Gwendolyn Yates Whittle
“The Hurt Locker”, Paul N.J. Ottosson
“Inglourious Basterds”, Wylie Stateman
“Star Trek”, Mark Stoeckinger and Alan Rankin
“Up”, Michael Silvers and Tom Myers

Sound Mixing
“Avatar”, Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson and Tony Johnson
“The Hurt Locker”, Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett
“Inglourious Basterds”, Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti and Mark Ulano
“Star Trek”, Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson and Peter J. Devlin
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers and Geoffrey Patterson

Visual Effects
“Avatar”, Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones
“District 9”, Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros and Matt Aitken
“Star Trek”, Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh and Burt Dalton

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
“District 9”, Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
“An Education”, Screenplay by Nick Hornby
“In the Loop”, Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”, Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher
“Up in the Air”, Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Writing (Original Screenplay)
“The Hurt Locker”, Written by Mark Boal
“Inglourious Basterds”, Written by Quentin Tarantino
“The Messenger”, Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
“A Serious Man”, Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
“Up”, Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy

Mel Gibson Brings the Crazy to Edge of Darkness

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

This film marks Mel Gibson’s first starring role since 2002’s “Signs.” During those eight years, it’s safe to say that Gibson has not lead a quiet life. His well publicized anti-Semitic statements in 2006 have only made him an even more controversial figure. Going into this film, I decided to judge the film and not the man’s off-screen behavior, no matter how disgusting it may have been.

Veteran Boston cop Matthew Craven (Mel Gibson) is excited when his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic) comes back home for a visit. Craven senses that something is wrong with Emma when he sees her vomiting and bleeding from the nose. As he is about to take her to the hospital, she is brutally killed in front of his eyes by a masked gunman. This causes Craven to embark on a mission to find whoever is responsible for his daughter’s murder.

His investigation leads him to Northmoor, a nuclear research company that his daughter worked for. Gibson has a nice scene with the head of the corporation, played by Danny Huston. Roger Ebert correctly points out that Huston is “ominously courteous” and says his performance reminded him of his father, John Huston, in “Chinatown.” I definitely caught Huston channeling some Noah Cross in this part. I liked Huston’s performance and his enormous glass office overlooking a beautiful forest landscape. It’s a good villain headquarters.

Along Gibson’s investigation he meets up with a shadowy figure, named Jedburgh (Ray Winstone). He appears to be helping Gibson, but also working for Northmoor. Winstone’s presence in the film throws you off a bit. We are not sure why he is here, or what exactly he is doing. This may sound odd, but I think the director, Martin Campbell, needed to do a better job of simplifying the mystery behind Winstone’s character. I enjoyed Winstone’s scenes with Gibson. I felt they were the most interesting moments in the film.

The story becomes more convoluted as we are exposed to the layer upon layers of conspirators that are responsible for Gibson’s daughter’s death. At this point, I did learn to not critically judge this part of the film. In order to enjoy the film, you have to accept the convoluted plot and go along for the ride. This evil conspiracy, involving corporations and the government, is not very good at its job. They let Gibson go on far too long with his investigation. As a result, the film kind of loses what ever thriller, suspense elements it had.

As the film’s plot grows more ridiculous, so does Gibson’s insanity. He is great at playing crazy, maybe that’s because he is a bit crazy in real life. Throughout the film we see him being haunted and having conversations with his dead daughter. The film lays these scenes on thick. When Gibson finally does unleash his revenge, it’s ridiculous, but sure is fun to watch. What he does with a bottle of milk had me laughing my ass off. The film revels in the violence at the end. It’s declaring that it’s just a standard revenge film. There’s nothing unique, or different here.

2 1/2 stars